On Growth, Politics, College and Career Prep

KIPP CEO Richard Barth answers commonly asked questions around KIPP’s growth, impact, goal of college graduation, and vouchers.

By Richard Barth, KIPP Foundation CEO

At KIPP, I am inspired to work alongside so many people who share a belief that, no matter their background or ZIP code, all children deserve to live a life of choices and follow their dreams. Today, there are nearly 90,000 KIPP students in school and more than 12,000 alumni in college. And we’re not even close to being finished.

While our beliefs remain constant, the education conversation is always in flux, raising new questions about how we translate these beliefs into action. There are some questions I’m met with time and again, and I want to share how I’ve been answering them.

Why Keep Growing?

I am incredibly proud of how KIPP has grown from Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin’s founding vision, to a national network of 209 schools across 20 states and DC. The purpose of this growth is twofold: 1) Ensuring that kids can enroll in a KIPP school as early as age 3 and stay with us through high school. Our data shows that offering families a KIPP education from elementary to middle to high school (PreK-12) has an enormously positive impact on their academic achievement and the choices they have in life. And 2) To meet the demand from the families on our waitlists. In the last school year we had 60,000 students nationwide waiting for spots in our schools. So, we’re going to keep opening more schools in KIPP cities and in new cities – Miami is up next – to enroll kids from our waitlists and keep them in KIPP schools from PreK through high school graduation.

A broader answer is that as KIPP grows, our impact ripples beyond the walls of our schools. Compared with 15 years ago, cities like Denver, Boston, DC, Houston, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Newark are better places for children to learn. KIPP is part of that, working with communities to create positive change and more great options for parents and kids going to school in those cities.


Why Work Beyond Our Schools?

I truly believe KIPP’s national footprint helps us better educate our own kids – and all kids. Our size has enabled us to develop powerful partnerships in places like Houston, San Antonio, and the Arkansas Delta, where we work directly with school districts to share what we’ve learned it takes for kids to get to and through college. In cities like Helena, AR, we are offering our college counseling to non-KIPP students, helping increase the rates of college visits, applications, acceptances, and matriculations for students in local district schools.

We are also eager to collaborate and learn from others doing great work to support students. Over the past six years, we have created 90 college partnerships with institutions across the country who want to get this right, from the University of Houston, with more than 140 KIPP students enrolled; to the University of Pennsylvania, home to more than 50 KIPP graduates. These partnerships help connect KIPPsters with a wider range of potential college matches, and build the peer support system critical to students’ persistence and academic success. Approximately 2,500 KIPP alumni are on a college partners’ campus this year. Next week, I’m excited to host our second annual convening of college partners, gathering administrators from more than 40 colleges to tackle the challenges first-generation students face, and commit to real policy changes.

Our reach allows us to spread institutional innovations that boost graduation rates for underserved students. For example, Georgia State University has led groundbreaking efforts to identify and support students at risk of not graduating and offer micro-grants to students for whom a $500 tuition balance might be all that stands between them and a degree. KIPP is working to help other colleges implement similar models.

Our substantial alumni network of 22,000-plus young people brings the voices of KIPP students and their peers into policy conversations. This year, a survey of our college-age alumni illuminated the realities of contentious issues like whether to invest tax dollars in programs such as Pell funding.

And, over the past three years, our Capitol Hill Internship Program has placed nearly 30 alumni in congressional offices, DC think tanks, and the White House.


Is College the Ultimate Goal?

KIPP has always been about providing students pathways to live fulfilling lives of choice. I still believe – and data shows – that for the majority of KIPPsters, college is the most powerful engine for creating options in today’s America and for creating intergenerational economic mobility. However, in the communities in which KIPP operates, far too few kids grow up to earn BA degrees. We remain laser-focused on supporting KIPPsters in matriculating to, persisting in, and graduating from college.

College is a means to an end, but college itself isn’t the ultimate goal. The goal is for our students to enter adulthood with a purpose, passion, and plan, and be in a position to make choices. While college is the most proven path to high-wage, high-demand, high-impact careers, it’s not the only one. The truth is, our education system does a decent job at highlighting college opportunities (we need to do much, much better), but we do a pretty awful job at providing young people with guidance on non-college alternatives. That’s why we are launching pilot programs in several cities, to identify pathways to careers that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree.

We have already learned that a good jobs program must have a strong commitment to developing skills valued by employers (and result in industry-recognized credentials), compensate trainees, and conclude with an actual paying position. With those preliminary findings, we will be working with several KIPP regions to pilot a new strategy, partnering with high-quality career and tech education programs, as well as community colleges, to prepare students to compete for high-wage, in-demand jobs.

And while I believe that the vast majority of our KIPPsters will take the four-year college path, we acknowledge there is a significant number who won’t. There are 90,000 students in our schools – and we intend to keep our promises to all of them. I imagine a world where our high school seniors – those who have decided that a four-year college path is not right for them – also have quality options and support in deciding whether a two-year college, a professional certificate program, or a skilled apprenticeship is right for them. I expect this to become a center of excellence for KIPP – just as college guidance is today – in the coming years. Stay tuned.


Where Does Community College Fit into All of This?

Community colleges face many of the same challenges as many unpaid workforce programs. When their training programs and degrees or credentials aren’t aligned with local employer demand, students struggle. The harsh reality is that students attending community colleges with low graduation rates and no ties to potential employers are in danger of leaving college with debt – and no degree. In fact, the student debt crisis everyone is discussing these days is at its worst in community colleges.  

I’m an optimist, though, and I do believe that there are community colleges showing us what can be done. These colleges are integrating themselves into their local economies and building strong connections to major employers. In the next decade, we will see more young people graduating high school and entering community colleges that are fully integrated with employers and preparing them for in-demand, higher-wage jobs. That’s happening in some places today, like in Washington State, where Boeing is working with five colleges across the state to develop competency-based training aligned with employer demand in advanced manufacturing. I think we are absolutely going to be seeing more and more cases where young people start work and take courses at community colleges that are created in partnership with their employer.  


Will KIPP Start a KIPP College?  

We will continue to focus on our PreK-12 schools and partner with colleges and universities. And we will be looking to partner with organizations that are creating all sorts of new models to higher education. That’s absolutely our preferred course. But we never say never, because if the world doesn’t move fast enough to support our KIPPsters and young people like them, we will.


How Do Today’s Politics Affect KIPP?

For KIPP, with schools from Columbus to Los Angeles and from New Orleans to Newark, our reality is that all politics is local. KIPP schools are public schools, supported by communities and states, and accountable to the public. At the end of the day, it is about doing good for kids and building relationships with everyone including elected officials across the political spectrum.

Federally, there is a ton of noise right now, on education for sure, but on everything. Even though politics is truly local, we will continue to speak up at the federal level for our mission, our kids and families and alumni, and our values, just as we have always done.

The only way to advocate for our values is to have a seat at the table, meeting with policymakers on a regular basis. This is why we have hosted nearly thirty advocacy days on Capitol Hill – meeting with members of Congress and multiple presidential administrations. Our advocacy priorities are student-centered – always – which has led us to engage on issues ranging from school nutrition to investing in evidence-based programs to supporting first-generation students on their climb to and through college to supporting Dreamers.  


What Are Your Thoughts on Vouchers?

So many people like to ask this question. And I think some folks are really trying to use it as a ‘gotcha’ question, or a litmus test of some sort. Which side are you on? So let me just say the following: First, I bring a ton of humility to any discussion that involves parent choice. Millions of Americans – including me and my wife – exercise school choice. Millions move to neighborhoods that they believe have the best schools for their children. And so I am hesitant to pass judgment on any efforts – including vouchers – that help parents help their children attend a great school. I’m just not going to do it. I think it’s hypocritical.

That said, I would like to keep us all focused on continuing to implement scalable solutions that have proven academic outcomes and are truly game changing for millions of kids. Data shows that high-quality public charters can help underserved students succeed, and also can help improve learning across a community. The bottom line is – we need more great schools!


What’s Next?

The world has changed a lot in the 23 years since KIPP began. But what’s amazing to me is how the same simple beliefs have propelled us forward, like working hard and being nice. And that every child, given the opportunity, can and will learn. I am counting on our alums to help us leave this world better than we found it. So, when I picture a world where there are 200,000 KIPP alumni – and that is a very real picture in my head – that is something worth believing in.